Jamaica Branches Out

The island’s tourism roots grow deeper

By: By David Swanson

What Else is New in Jamaica

Visitors careen down the tracks of the bobsled run at Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios. // (c) David Swanson
Visitors careen down the tracks of the bobsled run at Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios.

The island’s newest attraction is Mystic Mountain, a 100-acre park close to Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios and partly financed by Carnival Cruise Line. The facility includes a chairlift that takes guests to a viewpoint 700 feet above sea level, a Jamaican athletic heritage museum and a zipline tour. But the site’s real claim to fame is a first-ever bobsled ride along a 3,300-foot, stainless-steel track on custom-built, single-rider German-designed bobsleds.

Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay will complete its expansion at the end of this year, while another expansion is under way at Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport.

Beyond Couples Tower Isle, other resorts have engaged in major renovations or expansions. The Wyndham Rose Hall Resort completed a $42 million overhaul last winter and was reflagged as a Hilton Resort in July. In November, Half Moon Resort completed a 68,000-square-foot spa that ranks as one of the region’s most plush. The landmark Trident Hotel in Port Antonio — one of the island’s oldest luxury properties — is finally receiving a long-overdue upgrade scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

All-Inclusive Alternatives

It’s said success has many fathers, but trace the fixed price vacation concept to its roots and the initial sprout probably emerged in Jamaica.

In the early 1960s — when Club Med was little more than seasonal tent colonies — Frenchman’s Cove, a resort located outside Port Antonio, Jamaica, advertised a luxurious "two for two for two" holiday: two weeks, two people, for $2,000. It was an outrageous sum for the time, but the price included not just meals and drinks, but villas staffed by a butler and a maid, a car and chauffeur and even flights to other points on the island.

The term "all-inclusive" probably originated in 1978, when Abe Issa converted his Tower Isle hotel into the first Couples Resort. Since then, a chorus line of hotels has followed in its wake. Today the vast majority of rooms in the Dominican Republic and along Mexico’s Caribbean coast are sold as all-inclusive. But one of Jamaica’s strengths is the diversity of its vacation product, targeting all price levels and styles of travel. Although swim-up pool bars and rah-rah theme parties tend to dominate the bigger all-inclusive resorts, there are alternatives.

The two FDR resorts in Jamaica, located on the coast between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, include a nanny for each family checking in. She takes the kids swimming, teaches them tie-dye, or travels with you on day trips to Dunn’s River Falls. Parents who want an evening away from the kids can hire the nanny to stay on past 5 p.m. for $4 an hour.

Just a stone’s throw from a giant Riu resort, the 65-room Sunset at the Palms is one of the few in Negril that isn’t situated directly on the beach (though it has beach access and a bar across the road). The hotel turns its drawback into an advantage by emphasizing its intimate environment among lush, tended gardens, away from the beach bustle. Despite having just two restaurants and one pool, the resort consistently ranks at or near the top of Jamaican hotels recommended by Trip Advisor readers.

Some hotels are almost an all-inclusive. Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost chain runs The Caves on the rocky bluffs south of Negril, with 10 handcrafted, thatch-roofed cottages swathed in bright colors with hand-carved furniture, batik fabrics and original art — rare nuances in a typical all-inclusive. There’s even a grotto that can be reserved for a one-of-a-kind candlelight dinner. Rates include three meals daily, drinks, taxes and service.

Although the 47-room Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios introduced an E.P. option in recent years, the older hotel still sells M.A.P. to most of its regulars, who return for privacy, a child-free environment and low-tech comfort: Guests trade the distraction of a TV for a huge balcony suitable for lounging, and croquet parties blossom on the broad lawn.

Jamaica Inn competes head-to-head with the Sandals resort next door. The 74-room Royal Plantation, which opened in 2001, has an all-inclusive option, but the hotel was recently rebranded as an E.P. hotel, and the Sandals name is nowhere to be found today as the Royal Plantation actively courts an upscale audience.

Not to be left behind, The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall has an eye-catchingly competitive deal. The Key to Paradise package for the fall season starts at $429 per room and includes three meals, drinks, taxes and gratuities. For a true luxury hotel with room-only rack rates starting at $299, the package offers excellent value.

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Lee Issa massaged his robust hands eagerly. The chairman of Jamaica-based Couples Resorts was inspecting the day’s work at his $25 million renovation of Couples Tower Isle, in Ocho Rios.

The 59-year-old property is one that Issa’s father, Abe Issa, originally built and, as the island’s first beach resort, the hotel ushered in a new era of Jamaican tourism. Issa explained how, a few days before my visit, while the worn-out lobby was being gutted, Tower Isle had revealed a surprise: a pair of original murals by John Pike, a painter from Boston.

The Hotel Riu Montego Bay opened in August. // (c) Riu hotels & resorts
The Hotel Riu Montego Bay opened in August.

"He has works in the Smithsonian," said Issa, proudly. "When they remodeled the hotel restaurant some years back they got covered up. But we’re going to restore them."

Issa walked me through the construction site to survey the mostly undamaged murals — sprawling, colorful works that depict Jamaica’s history through a distinctly American lens, circa 1949 — and then enthused about how the 206-room resort was being reimagined.

"We’re going back to the look of the 1940s and 1950s," he said. "Instead of the peaked roofs there will be parapets. We’re giving it an art-deco look, like old South Beach Miami."

Couples Tower Isle — which wraps up its facelift in December — is a hotel with roots deeply intertwined within the Caribbean’s tourism lineage. But it’s hardly Jamaica’s only construction project under way. The island is branching out with a full-scale building boom that is slated to add 5,000 rooms this year and next, a 20 percent increase in total room inventory.

This year’s noteworthy additions include Spanish chain Fiesta Hotel Group’s 1,056-room Grand Paladium in Lucea, along the previously undeveloped coastline between Montego Bay and Negril. The project represents Jamaica’s largest hotel — actually two, side-by-side — spread among 28 three-story villas with 10 restaurants, 13 bars, five pools and a spa.

In August, Riu Hotels opened its fourth resort on the island — the 701-room Riu Montego Bay — and initiated a remodel and upgrade of the Riu Palace Tropical Bay in Negril, which will convert all rooms into junior suites.

This month and next, Iberostar will debut its second and third hotels on a site just east of Montego Bay airport, completing an $850 million, 978-room complex.

The hotels are each all-inclusive — a product Jamaica is well-known for — while the 299-room Solis, The Palmyra Resort & Spa, slated to open in January, is one of the few built in the last decade that targets the E.P. (European plan) crowd with three 12-story towers rising next to the island’s Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall. The upscale Palmyra is the first in the Caribbean for Horst Schulze’s new Solis-branded hotels, with a 30,000-square-foot Espa spa (the region’s first) and — pending legislative approval — Jamaica’s first casino.

The timing for Jamaica’s hotel expansion may be awkward, especially when the world economy is heading south, and airlines are ratcheting up prices and cutting flights. Several hoteliers expressed nervousness about the winter season. Still, Jamaica has enjoyed an 8.4 percent increase in its number of stayover arrivals for the first half of this year, amounting to 939,000 visitors in all.

"Our figures are looking good," said Basil Smith, Jamaica’s outgoing director of tourism.

Jamaica remains the Caribbean’s third most popular island destination, only behind the Dominican Republic and Cuba, both of which are supported primarily by non-American visitors.

"We’re one of only five Caribbean destinations that are still showing positive figures this year," said Smith.

Jamaica’s success comes in large part due to a well-diversified vacation product and one for which the latest spurt of development has been ongoing for several years. Through incentives and concessions, the government has helped finance this expansion with a goal of creating thousands of tourism-linked jobs. But the rapid build-up also means that, during my July visit to the island, I encountered quite a few resort and other employees who were new to their positions, even in established hotels, and not always fully trained.

"There has been a giant sucking sound," acknowledged Smith, speaking of the supply of skilled labor. "The problem is recognized and we’re addressing it as thoroughly as we can through the government’s own training programs. There’s a limit to how many [employees] you can turn out, but the government is planning a second hotel training school in Montego Bay. And the Spanish-Jamaica foundation is helping address the need for multilingual workers."

A rendering of the renovated Couples Tower Isle shows the Jacuzzi and pool decks. // (c) Couples Resorts Jamaica
A rendering of the renovated Couples Tower Isle shows the Jacuzzi and pool decks.

The language issue highlights one aspect of the building boom: The vast majority of the new hotels coming on line are being built by foreign companies, mostly Spanish. Although chains like Riu and Iberostar are steadily securing a North American following, they also lure a sizeable contingent of foreign visitors to the island, travelers for whom English is not a first language.

Locals refer to it as the Spanish Invasion, a reference to the one-time colonial power making a fresh claim on Jamaica, with a crop of big and bigger resorts sprouting along the island’s north coast, from Negril to Ocho Rios. Observers are predicting a glut of beds that may push down the price of a Jamaican vacation, especially at the all-inclusive options, however local players claim they are not worried.

Adam Stewart, CEO of Jamaica-based Sandals Resort, said he is "absolutely not" concerned about the increased competition.

"It’s a different product," he added.

Last year Sandals barred the use of the term "all-inclusive," replacing it with a trademarked tag line: "Luxury Included." Stewart says the company invested more than $80 million in improvements into its existing Jamaica hotels, including expanding 300-square-foot standard rooms at Sandals Negril into 1,000-square-foot river suites with swim-up access.

"We haven’t built a regular hotel room in six years," Stewart said.

Nonetheless, Sandals is countering the Spaniards with its new Grand Pineapple Beach Resort in Negril, a remaking of the former Negril Gardens hotel, priced to accommodate an audience for which the Sandals and Beaches hotels might be out of reach.

SuperClubs, which already has lower-priced Starfish and Breezes hotels in Jamaica catering to the more price-sensitive market, is going a step further. In July, the company opened its second branch of Rooms on the Beach, a no-frills, 57-room hotel in Negril that is, with the exception of a continental breakfast included in the rates, a non-inclusive hotel, with rooms starting at $100 a night.

"When everyone was saying Jamaica was only for all-inclusives it gave me great personal satisfaction to open a hotel that wasn’t," joked John J. Issa, executive chairman of Superclubs.

But John Issa also expressed apprehension about the changed landscape.

"What has really happened is a perfect storm. We have rising operating costs, expanded supply and our customers are getting poorer. I’m just hoping that the political situation cools down and the economic situation heats up," he explained.

Air access is another fly in the ointment. At last report, the government’s flagship, Air Jamaica, had accumulated losses of $1.2 billion and Prime Minister Bruce Golding plans divestiture by March 2009. The carrier’s codeshare and frequent-flier agreements with Delta ended last year, and the airline is not currently allied with any U.S. carrier. Air Jamaica has trimmed some flights as it pares down inefficient routes but continues to fly to Montego Bay and Kingston from nine U.S. airports, including LAX.

So far, other carriers have not cut service to Jamaica. In fact, on Nov. 2, American Airlines plans to increase its schedule between Miami and Montego Bay from two daily nonstop flights to three. On the same date, American will also increase its service between Dallas/Fort Worth and Montego Bay from one weekly flight to five weekly and then to daily service in mid-December. On Jan. 31, American will begin nonstop flights five days a week from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Montego Bay.

And Air Jamaica’s Los Angeles-Montego Bay red-eye illuminates the fact that Jamaica is the only Caribbean island (besides Puerto Rico) with direct air access from the West Coast.

"We keep trying to remind Los Angeles residents that Jamaica is only 153 miles farther than Honolulu," said Smith.

And the major players are developing contingency plans. The Spanish all-inclusives have begun chartering flights from Europe and Canada, an option Stewart said is on the table for the U.S. market.

"The airlift issue is fairly scary," Stewart said. "But if it gets to the point where we need to charter planes, we’ll charter them. Jamaica will weather any storm."

The island has also reinforced longstanding ties to the travel agent community, and Stewart said Jamaica is bringing down 3,000 agents this fall to tour the island.

"We’ll do roadshows and meet with all the agents and invite them to come down," said Stewart. "We’re dying to show [the island] to you."